Commentary Magazine


"Mr. Virginia Woolf"

Over the past generation, the flow of books about the Bloomsbury group that began in the 1960's has turned into a flood. All the major Bloomsbury figures—Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and the rest—have been commemorated in biographies, several of them more than once. Minor figures have been exhumed, too. Diaries and letters have been edited and published. There have been memoirs, background studies, and a great mass of criticism, to say nothing of docudrama plays and films.

By now, faced with yet another serving of Bloomsburiana, you would have to be a hopeless addict not to feel a twinge of resistance. Aren't we approaching the saturation point? But a new book about Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning is a case apart.
1 Even at this late hour, it can lay claim to novelty. It fills a significant space in the Bloomsbury jigsaw.

Leonard Woolf's connections with Bloomsbury went back to his student days (although the group itself did not take shape until a few years later). He was born in London in 1880, and went up to Cambridge at the age of eighteen. The closest friends he made at the university were future Bloomsburyites. One of them was Lytton Strachey, later to win fame as the author of Eminent Victorians. He was also friendly with someone who would almost certainly have played a leading role in Bloomsbury if he had not died young. This was Thoby Stephen, the son of Leslie Stephen, the distinguished Victorian critic and biographer.

After he graduated, Woolf's career took an unexpected swerve. Having failed to get into the senior civil service, he was offered a post in the colonial service instead. He accepted and found himself sent to Ceylon—the present-day Sri Lanka—where he served for seven years, rising to the rank of assistant government agent. (This involved administering an area of around 1,000 square miles.) In 1911 he was granted home leave. Back in England he resigned from the colonial service and married Thoby Stephen's sister Virginia.

Leonard Woolf was to have a long and influential career as a political journalist. He held important editorial positions, campaigned on behalf of the League of Nations, ventured into political theory, and undertook strenuous research and committee work for the Fabian Society and the Labor party. For many years, he was one of Labor's principal experts on international affairs. (All this proved enough to earn him a full-length study, Leonard Woolf: A Political Biography, by Duncan Wilson, published a few years after Woolf's death in 1969.) He was also a man of considerable literary gifts. His novel about Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle (1913), and the five-volume autobiography he wrote toward the end of his life have been widely and rightly admired.

But today even his finest achievements are completely overshadowed, as he himself recognized they would be, by the story—or legend—of his marriage. He entered the mainstream of literary history not as an author, but as a husband. His one sure passport to immortality has been as “Mr. Virginia Woolf.”

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Victoria Glendinning does what she can to redress the balance. She gives a fair and sensitive account of Leonard before Virginia, Leonard apart from Virginia, and Leonard after Virginia (she died by suicide in 1941, and he survived her by nearly 30 years). But the inevitable centerpiece of her book remains the marriage.

During Virginia Woolf's lifetime, only a handful of people realized that she suffered from periodic descents into madness. It was not until the 1960's that the facts became widely known; and when they were, the initial response was one of strong sympathy for husband and wife alike. There was an appreciation of Leonard's ordeal. He was praised for his heroic care and devotion.

Then, in no time at all, came a surge of feminism—and of malice unleashed in the name of feminism. Within a year or two of Leonard's death, he was being reviled as a persecutor and an oppressor. There were claims that he had done his best to undermine his wife's genius, and even her sanity.

Absurd though they were, these accusations have not entirely died down. As recently as 1998, a book was published entitled Who's Afraid of Leonard Woolf?, with the clear implication that Virginia, for one, should have been very afraid indeed. But Glendinning will have none of it. She does not idealize Woolf as a husband, or simplify his role. He often stood guard over Virginia in ways that would have been hard to justify if she had had a more stable personality. But Glendinning's final verdict is overwhelmingly favorable, and completely convincing. You are left in no doubt, after reading her, that he was as supportive—or very nearly—as almost everyone once assumed.

It also seems clear that the marriage worked. Many things about it are mysterious. Did, for instance, the fact that it was sexless leave Leonard constantly frustrated, or did it in some way suit him? We are unlikely ever to learn the answer to such a question, and perhaps it is none of our business. But what cannot be mistaken, in Glendinning's account as in others', is a sense of intimacy and communion, of shared lives.

This is not to say, however, that there were not powerful sources of tension. Glendinning deserves special credit for highlighting one of the most important of them more decisively than any previous Woolf biographer. Leonard was a Jew. Virginia did not like Jews. Such was the conundrum that lay at or near the heart of their loving relationship.

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The first members of the Woolf family to arrive in England—probably in the late 18th century—lived obscure lives in London's East End. Leonard's grandfather prospered and moved his tailoring business to the West End. His father, Sidney, was a lawyer who achieved the high rank of Queen's Counsel but died at the age of forty-seven—leaving his widow Marie to bring up a large family on a much reduced income.

Sidney Woolf had belonged to a Reform synagogue, where he served as warden. After his death Marie maintained a number of traditional practices, but over the years the family's Jewishness became increasingly attenuated. Leonard was one of nine siblings, all of whom (apart from an unmarried brother who died young) married non-Jews.

His own break with religion came early: at the age of fourteen, he told his mother that he had lost his faith and never wanted to attend synagogue again. Cambridge confirmed him in his unbelief, and when he set sail for Ceylon he took with him the works of Voltaire in 70 volumes—valuable reading-matter, no doubt, but also a deliberate statement of where his loyalties lay.

But if he abandoned Judaism, and if Jewish culture held little interest for him, that still left the question of anti-Semitism. Glendinning quotes one or two chilling accounts of the playground persecution endured by at least some Jewish boys at St. Paul's school around the time Woolf was a pupil there. Such an atmosphere, she concludes, touched him to the core: his sense of vulnerability as a Jew was the principal reason he developed what he called his “carapace,” the protective distance he put between himself and the outside world.

Common sense suggests that she is right in this. So do some remarks Woolf himself made toward the end of his life about the extent to which his character had been shaped by “the inveterate, the immemorial fatalism of the Jew.” On the other hand, he also claimed in old age that, although he had come up against the “common or garden” variety of anti-Semitism, it “has not touched me personally and only very peripherally.” (This was in a private letter to the novelist Dan Jacobson, prompted by Jacobson's review of the first three volumes of Woolf's autobiography in the March 1968 COMMENTARY.)

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Even if we set aside the question of his marriage, such a claim cannot be taken at face value. As Glendinning says, Woolf had a well-developed strategy of not noticing anti-Semitism when it suited him. But it would be equally mistaken to suppose that he was simply deluding himself. Although a constant lurking possibility, anti-Semitism was far from being the reality that shaped his daily life and his career. At Cambridge, he achieved virtually complete acceptance, at any rate in the ways that mattered most to him. In the colonial service, he was generally regarded as a good colleague, and one with outstanding prospects. In politics and journalism, he never lacked powerful supporters.

As an adult, indeed, it was only when he married Virginia that Woolf was made to feel like a true outsider. Virginia's sister, who was in favor of her marrying Leonard, told her not to worry about his being Jewish. But the thought obsessed her. In writing to friends to announce her engagement, almost always the first thing she let them know was that her fiancé was a Jew—or, perhaps because it sounded more piquant, “a penniless Jew.”

Leonard himself had to put up with complaints from her that he was “so foreign.” (The evidence she offered was “the strength of his desire.”) But it was his family who really got her going. The jeering account of Marie Woolf that she wrote after their first meeting was only the first of a long series of jibes delivered over the years, directed primarily at Marie (whom she found effusive and sentimental) but taking in her children as well.

Some of Virginia's observations about the Woolfs might be amusing if one came across them in a milder context. Occasionally, too, she relented, acknowledging the undoubted decency of this or that member of the family, even of Marie. But the prevailing tone was nasty, and the racial slurs were uninhibited. “I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh,” she confided in her diary (which Leonard saw) after having tea with Leonard's sister Flora. She summed up a Woolf family reunion as “nine Jews, all of whom, with the single exception of Leonard, might well have been drowned, without the world wagging one ounce the worst.”

Leonard, at least, was granted the status of a superior person, but even he could expect to be reminded where he came from. According to an impeccable source—Virginia's nephew Quentin Bell—one of the things she used to say at meals was, “Give the Jew his food.” Apparently Leonard didn't object.

It need hardly be said that Virginia's unfavorable reflections on Jews were not confined to remarks about her in-laws. A curious example of how contorted her reactions could be occurred at a lunch in 1929 at which she met Sir Philip Sassoon.

The Sassoons—“the Rothschilds of the East”—were an immensely wealthy family of Iraqi Jews who had made their fortune in Bombay and settled in England. By Philip's time, they were firmly entrenched in English life. A baronet (the third Sassoon in succession to hold the title), he was educated at Eton and Oxford, and during World War I he served as private secretary to the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Haig. His subsequent positions ranged from minister for the air force to chairman of the National Gallery. A friend of Proust (whose sexual tastes he shared), he was renowned for his opulent homes and his work as a patron of the arts.

All this needs to be known if one is to register the full force of the description of Sir Philip Sassoon that Virginia set down after their lunchtime encounter: “an underbred Whitechapel Jew.” (Whitechapel was the equivalent of New York's Lower East Side.) It is hard to imagine an insult further off-target—unless one is looking for confirmation of the anti-Semitic principle that all Jews are interchangeable.

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The coming to power of the Nazis had an inevitable impact on the Woolfs' lives. Leonard was soon in the thick of anti-fascist activities, attending meetings and joining committees. Virginia, who had no taste for such things, felt neglected: “I might be the charwoman of a prime minister,” she complained to a friend. Her own response to fascism was primarily feminist, and her polemical energies were largely deflected into Three Guineas (1938), a tract about patriarchal oppression in England. But she never doubted that Hitler was a horrifying phenomenon in every respect. She lent her name to a number of anti-fascist protests and petitions (the manuscript of Three Guineas was sold to raise money for German refugees), and a drive across Germany that she and Leonard undertook in 1935 made it clear, if confirmation were needed, what a nightmarish place the country had become.

Yet it was also in the 1930's that anti-Semitism manifested itself in her fiction for the first time. Nothing in her previously published work can have prepared readers for the scene in her novel The Years (1937) in which a young woman is entertaining a friend in her cheap lodgings in London when they hear the sound of water being turned on in the room next door. “The Jew having a bath,” she explains.

The Jew—“Abrahamson, in the tallow trade”—is a fellow lodger. “And tomorrow,” she adds, “there'll be a line of grease round the bath.” She knows this because she is obliged to share the bathroom with him—and in the exchange with her friend that follows, the idea of this enforced intimacy is made to seem even more disgusting. We learn that “the Jew” can be heard coughing and snorting through the thin walls, and that he leaves not only a grease-mark in the bath but hairs as well.

To all this, the friend can finally only say “Pah!,” and all the girl can say is “Pah!” in return. The sense of physical revulsion is extraordinarily strong. The feelings involved seem barely under control. And it adds an odd twist that Leonard Woolf had some cousins named Abrahamson, who behaved exceptionally well to his mother after his father's death.

Shortly after The Years was published, Virginia wrote a short story, “The Duchess and the Jeweler.” Its central character, Isadore Oliver, had started out as “a little Jew boy” (complete with hooked nose) in an East End alley and ended up as the richest jeweler in England. It will come as no surprise that his business practices are questionable, although some of the titled ladies he deals with are pretty devious, too. The story was sent to the author's New York agent, who urged her to change Isadore's ethnicity. She reluctantly complied: the jeweler was transformed into “Oliver Bacon” (possibly “Bacon” was a defiant little joke), explicit references to his Jewish origins were removed, and in 1938 the story was published in its revised form in Harper's Bazaar.

“The Duchess and the Jeweler” is trivial, even trashy. But Virginia Woolf's powers were far from exhausted, and Between the Acts—her last novel—is a reminder of how brilliant she could be at her best. Written in 1941-42, it centers on a village pageant celebrating the history of England. Her own attitude is by no means one of simple patriotism: the book has many ironies and cross-currents. But a deep feeling for the English past runs through it—a feeling intensified by the atmosphere of threat and uncertainty building up in the background.

The action takes place in June 1939. War is very close at hand. Voices drift across the summer night, mingling local gossip with bemusement at what people have been reading about in the papers: “And what about the Jews? The refugees. The Jews. People like ourselves, beginning life again.”

“People like ourselves.” But, however briefly, another and more familiar note is also struck. One of the most vivid characters in the book is Mrs. Manresa. She is a gate-crasher at the pageant, an over-dressed, over-sexed London acquaintance of the organizers who happens to have been driving through the neighborhood. Everything about her proclaims her smart superficiality. Her origins are obscure (she is said to be Australian); so are the details of her complicated love life. But what is not in doubt is the role played by her husband, Ralph Manresa. “Ralph, a Jew, got up to look the very spit and image of the landed gentry, supplied from directing City companies—that was certain—tons of money; and they had no child.” A small touch, Ralph's Jewishness, but one that rounds out the suggestion of his wife's inauthenticity.

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There was nothing very unusual about Virginia Woolf's attitudes in her day. But there was nothing inevitable about them, either, and one might have hoped for something better. Was not Bloomsbury a citadel of civilized values and finer feelings? It was, if you simply accept the legend. But in reality, it also had its characteristic vices—snobbery and bitchiness high among them.

Even more to the point, the Bloomsbury group, despite its name, should not be treated as a single entity. It was a loose confederation of individuals who often differed from one another and frequently changed their minds. Certainly a survey of Bloomsbury attitudes toward Jews would reveal many contrasts and contradictions.

Clive Bell—Leonard's brother-in-law, and the author of a book entitled Civilization—was capable of making the coarsest anti-Semitic jokes. The great economist and major Bloomsbury figure John Maynard Keynes was not above casual “drawing-room” anti-Semitism—but he also helped refugee scholars and spoke out against Nazi persecution. His favorite student and close collaborator, Richard Kahn, was not only a Jew but a religiously observant one: Keynes used to call him, with something between affection and amused condescension, “the little rabbi.” Further along the spectrum, E.M. Forster emerges with particular honor. In 1939 he published an article, “Jew-Consciousness,” which concluded, “To me, anti-Semitism is now the most shocking of all things.” Simple words, but simplicity was what was called for—and that, too, was Bloomsbury.

Leonard Woolf had to negotiate his way through tricky waters. Even when he did not actually know the disobliging things that some of his associates said about Jews, he must have had a sense of it. His solution was to maintain the carapace, or to look the other way. He was, for example, a friend of T.S. Eliot (as well as being one of his early publishers). The two used to lunch together, at one period as frequently as once a week. In the 1960's, when scholars began to ask Woolf about Eliot's anti-Semitism, his reply was always the same. The subject had never come up between them and he did not know why the poet felt that way.

Few of Woolf's contemporaries would have found this policy of see-no-evil strange or reprehensible. It is hard to credit today just how reluctant people once were—and not without reason—to raise awkward questions. But however little Leonard may have said about it, the anti-Semitism of his own wife was another story. It was literally something he had to live with.

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Initially he seems to have been overwhelmed by Virginia's having accepted him. He began his marriage, shamefully, by failing to invite his mother to the wedding. She was of course bitterly hurt; but there was as bad or worse to come.

Two years later, he published an autobiographical novel, The Wise Virgins, which directs a certain amount of satire at Bloomsbury but reserves its cruelest barbs for his own family, and his mother in particular. The character based on her sits in a stuffy suburban drawing-room complaining about servants. The best that can be said for her is that she was born in the wrong place and a few thousand years too late. Her heavy features would have suited her, we are told, if she had been “squatting under a palm tree,” and her sing-song tones might have been acceptable if she had been singing the song of Miriam in the Book of Exodus.

Later, Leonard felt less need to distance himself from his family. In any case, he had moved on. But what are we to make of his apparent passivity when Virginia was on the attack? His main role in relation to her writing was plainly to provide reassurance, but did he really say nothing to her about the bathroom episode in The Years? He must surely have wondered about it: after all, he was the only Jew who regularly used the same bath she did. And he was not a weak man. Did he really swallow her insults without resentment?

No doubt it made all the difference that he had a life outside marriage that gave wide scope to his energies. Or rather two lives. There was publishing—he was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Hogarth Press, the small but notable imprint he and Virginia had founded. (Among other things, they were Freud's English publishers.) And there was politics.

Leonard was never messianic in his socialism or starry-eyed in his internationalism. He was resolutely anti-Communist. In the 1930's, moreover, unlike many of his Labor-party colleagues, he came out strongly in favor of re-armament. (Virginia was a pacifist.) But he still aspired to follow the same course for 50 years. From the time his anti-imperialism set in, after Ceylon, he remained committed to what might broadly be called the socialist project.

One political creed that did not fit into his scheme of things was Zionism. He saw it, overwhelmingly, as a recipe for conflict with the Arabs, and he was immune to its positive appeals. In the 1920's, the historian Lewis Namier made repeated attempts to win him over to the Zionist cause, and even arranged for him to spend an hour or two with Chaim Weizmann. But all to no avail. It was only a generation later, after the state of Israel had become an achieved reality, that his attitude changed.

In 1957, he visited the country together with Trekkie Parsons, the woman companion of his latter years. Apart from the sight of Orthodox Jews, which provoked a predictable diatribe, he liked what he saw. In fact, as Victoria Glendinning writes, he was exhilarated, especially by the buzz and animation of Tel Aviv.

For the rest of his life, as a small gesture, he arranged for boxes of oranges and grapefruits to be sent from Israel to friends as a Christmas present. (One wonders what Virginia would have said.) And at the age of eighty-seven, in one of his last interventions in public affairs, he wrote a letter to the London Times criticizing a previous letter, from the wife of a retired Archbishop of Canterbury, that compared Arab terrorists who had blown up a school bus with heroes of the French Resistance in World War II. (The year was 1968.) Subsequently, he found himself engaged in a private correspondence with the Archbishop himself, in the course of which he firmly argued the case not so much for Israel's right to exist, which he took for granted, as for the corollary: its right to defend itself.

He was active almost to the end. But for all their new departures, the last three decades of his life have about them the unavoidable air of an epilogue. His marriage remains the predominant drama of his career—and the hardest to fathom. Even after reading Victoria Glendinning's admirable account, one is still baffled by his readiness to submit to what Glendinning calls the “corrosive contempt” he had to endure from Virginia, and especially her contempt for his people.

It is a mystery. But a possible clue lies in his own dark notion that the defining, immemorial mark of the Jewish character is fatalism. Perhaps he persuaded himself that the insults he received, either directly or via his family, were his natural due. Perhaps he came to feel that, in marrying Virginia, he had unwittingly embraced a Jewish destiny.

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Footnotes

1 Leonard Woolf: A Biography. Free Press, 512 pp., $30.00.

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About the Author

John Gross is the editor most recently of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. His “Mr. Virginia Woolf” appeared in the December 2006 COMMENTARY.